Successfully Facing Writing Feedback
One of the things many writing classes offer is feedback. As I write this, I’m preparing materials to teach an in-person writing workshop. The workshop will involve one-on-one writing feedback for the attendees. It’s the same sort of thing I did as an Institute instructor, only in person.
Years of teaching writing have made me acutely aware that facing feedback can be tough. On the one hand, we want to know all the things we did wrong so we can do them right instead. On the other hand, ouch, ouch, ouch! It isn’t a comfortable feeling to have someone point out your flaws, even when you asked them to do it.
Taking on anything uncomfortable can trigger unhelpful behaviors, which makes it worthwhile to make a plan for facing feedback. The plan will help you deal with writing instructors, critique groups, and editors. There’s no point in your career where you will stop getting feedback. The skills you build now will be called upon over and over in the days and years to come.
Listen Carefully to Writing Feedback
Whether you’re in a situation where you are getting writing feedback in person or through written remarks on your work, the first thing is simply to read or listen to the feedback without comment. It’s natural for your brain to immediately begin to rally arguments about why you did something or why your choice was right. This is unproductive, so push this response aside as best you can.
You want to hear or read what is actually being said, not your reaction to what is being said. Giving in to the urge to react at this point will make you miss things. I promise it will. It’s done that for me. It’s done it for every writer you’ve ever known. Writers can be as temperamental as any other artistic person and that can mean we get stirred up by criticism. But the more we can set aside that defensiveness, the better we can process what we’ve been told.
This tendency to react is so universal that most in-person critique groups have a rule that you cannot interrupt someone giving you a critique and you cannot defend yourself. That rule isn’t there to make your life worse. It’s there to encourage you to push aside those kinds of emotionally charged reactions and better understand the writing feedback being offered. Knee-jerk reactions will always be unhelpful because they are at least partly based in defensiveness.
Think of the times you tried to tell a friend something constructive they needed to hear, but probably didn’t want to hear. How many times have people insisted you said something that you didn’t really say? That comes from this emotional defensiveness. It’s natural, but it’s frustrating for the person trying to help and blocks the receiver from gaining the help they might need. One of the first things you can do to improve your response to feedback is to practice active, mindful listening that pushes aside emotional responses in favor of consuming information accurately. Listen. Take notes. And don’t respond right away.
Give Yourself Time
Because defensiveness is such a normal response to critical feedback, it is almost certainly going to take time before you can process the feedback accurately. The good thing about written feedback is that you can return to it over and over. As a rule of thumb, read through your writing feedback at least three times. Notice how the feedback changes upon repeat readings. Sometimes feedback that sounded harsh on first reading becomes more reasonable as you read it again and again. And sometimes feedback that you believed said one thing reallt said something else entirely and you realize it through those repeat readings.
Giving yourself time will be hugely helpful in not burning your bridges. This can be especially important in face-to-face feedback. When you give in to reacting to the feedback immediately, you can frustrate the person trying to help you because you aren’t listening, you’re building arguments. And if you frustrate people who want to help you enough, they lose interest in your success. You’ll end up with the person thinking, “Fine, do it your way. See how that turns out.” Don’t make people quit on you. Take the time you need to detach the emotional defensiveness from the value available in learning those things you need to correct.
Read Everything, Even Between the Lines
Once you’ve given yourself time to process the feedback in a logical way, you can begin to evaluate whether it’s feedback that will be helpful. Not all directions need to be followed to the letter. Not all feedback is accurate. Ultimately only you can decide if the feedback you receive has helped. Keep in mind that most feedback is helpful, at least in part. I’ve received feedback that was incorrect but still helped draw my attention to a portion of the work that was confusing the reader and making them come to an incorrect conclusion. The conclusion wasn’t accurate, but it accurately pointed to a problem. Thus, even if you’re certain the person giving you feedback is wrong about a specific instance, try to figure out why they made the assumption they made.
For example, I once wrote a story about a family whose last name was Sparkle. I liked the sound of the word “Sparkle,” and I thought it would make a funny last name for an ordinary main character. Unfortunately, the choice resulted in reader confusion. Because the reader age was quite young (it was meant to be a read-aloud), the person giving me feedback assumed Sarah was meant to be a sentient sparkle and that ruined the person’s understanding of everything in the story. Now in a published piece, there would be illustrations that kept the intended readers from mistaking little Sarah’s identity, but if the text is unclear without the illustrations, then it’s potentially going to be unclear for acquiring editors. I needed to eliminate that possible mistake before moving on with the story. Had I dismissed the feedback out of hand because it was based on a misreading, I would have run the risk of future misreadings ruining the story’s chance of publication.
Respond with Gratitude
Responding to feedback is complicated. As mentioned earlier, defensiveness is natural but unproductive. The first thing to do is to check that your responses don’t drag defensiveness into your communication. That doesn’t mean a response isn’t appropriate.
I once gave a critique of a first chapter to a young man, and he really didn’t like it. He wasn’t ready to consider the possibility that the chapter needed some rewriting. But he didn’t want to rant at me since it could create problems in some of our shared relationships. So, he simply didn’t respond at all. That’s not the right reaction either. For me, since I’ve been helping writers for many years, I knew what was going on with him and didn’t take offense, but it was rude. When someone takes the time to try to help you improve (even if you don’t agree with everything they said), the number one response needs to be gratitude.
Anyone giving you feedback is giving you a piece of their time and skills that took that person years and years to hone. Maybe you don’t like what they said, but the fact that they said it at all is amazing. The writing life will present you with lots and lots of opportunities to send something off, hoping for publication, and ending with no feedback at all. You don’t make the sale and you have no idea why. That can leave you feeling like you’re flailing around and unsure how close you’re getting to success. So, when someone does give you feedback, any feedback, respect it and the person’s time and respond with the gratitude it deserves. Plus, quite frankly, everything about your writing life will improve if you cultivate gratitude. You’ll be seen by editors as easier to work with. Your emails won’t be ignored. And readers will love you.
Questions When Appropriate
Once you’ve responded with gratitude, the next acceptable response is questions. You may not understand the terminology used in the feedback. You may not be certain what the person means by a specific remark. In that case, don’t hold back on asking questions. I’ve seen writers take in feedback, misinterpret it, and then make their work worse instead of better. Don’t be afraid to ask questions fearlessly. Ignore the tiny voice that doesn’t want you to admit you don’t know something. Speak up, ask questions, get clarity. If your questions aren’t coated by defensiveness, they’ll help you move forward.
Now, sometimes a question would be answered if you reread your assignment materials. Sometimes you simply miss things. Or a question might be answered with a quick web search. Say, you got feedback saying “SDT” and you’re not sure what that means. When I type “What does SDT mean in creative writing?” into my search engine, the second link tells me that SDT means “Show don’t tell.” Now, SDT can mean other things but none of them make sense in a specific writing situation. When you can save time by searching for the answers to questions you had, then it’s good to do that, but when in doubt, ask. People giving feedback want you to understand. They wouldn’t go to the trouble of sharing what they know unless they wanted you to understand.
Go and Grow
The last necessary response to feedback is to use it to grow. Good feedback goes beyond this one instance and offers you growth you can apply in the future. If you receive feedback explaining how to punctuate dialogue, you should go beyond fixing this snippet of dialogue and use the information to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.
Let feedback teach you, let the lessons sink in , and change your writing for the better. You don’t have to accept everything you’re ever told. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But when you get feedback you recognize as valuable, watch for ways to put it to use in the future. By not continuing to make the same mistake over and over after receiving feedback about it, you grow as a writer. And you increase your chances of publication success in the future.
That’s the purpose of feedback. That’s why we seek it out. We want to be more successful, and feedback can help take us there, but only if we respond to it correctly.
So, whenever feedback is a bit uncomfortable, keep your eye on the prize of eventual success, and you’ll find it helps get you there.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.